Larry Nassar, a former doctor to the US National Gymnastics Team, was accused of sexual abuse by more than 265 female athletes after also being found guilty of offences related to child pornography. While the abuse dates back decades, first charges were only laid in 2016 and since then more than two hundred women, mostly gymnasts, have come forward and with stories of abuse at his hands by a doctor in whom they had places their trust. We are talking about Olympic champions such as Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Alexandra Raisman and many other hurt, disappointed, once scared girls who are now braver than ever.
But I would also like to talk about the judge of the trial Rosemarie Aquilina. Thanks to her, those abused girls were heard both by the defendant and by the whole court and in tern the whole world. Each of them could finally confront the man who believed he could count on fear and shame to keep their silence. While it is common to hear from victims in the sentencing phase of a trial, Judge Aquilina did something unique by giving the floor to anyone who claimed they were abused, even if they had not laid charges.
We are all too familiar with the barriers to justice faced by victims of crimes and especially those of a sexual nature. In another widely publicised sexual assault case, Brock Turner, a former athlete at Stanford University was found guilty of sexually abusing a young woman while she was unconscious.
The case garnered worldwide attention as he was only sentenced to six months in prison, which then became three. Even more remarkable were the comments by the judge who expressed concern about the impact that a longer sentence could have had on such a young boy. In doing so he gave little to no regard for the severe impact the offence had left on the victim.
Often victims of sexual assaults are left re-traumatised by the harsh scrutiny they face during trials for sexual offences.
The victim in that trial, presented a letter in court describing the impact of the attack, she also mentioned some of the questions that had been asked to her during the trial. She had been asked about her weight, what she had eaten, who prepared the dinner, who had taken her to the party, who she had texted that night, about the times she went to the bathroom, about where she went to the bathroom, about who she was with when she went to the bathroom, if she had a boyfriend, if she had sex with her boyfriend, about what colour was the cardigan she was wearing, if she was wearing it before being raped.
Such questions are used to bring into question the reputation of the victim and tarnish their words. There has been debate over the last few years about finding a better way to question victims without bringing into question their entire reputation. By entering into a guilty plea, many of the victims in the Nassar trial were spared the normal courtroom trauma and were free to recount the events in their own words. Judge Aquilina went on from this to do something unique by giving the floor to victims whether or not they had laid charges.
Nassar has now been sentenced to 175 years. Judge Aquilina stated that it had been an honour, as well as a privilege, to deliver the sentence. She added that the abuse, which went ahead without him ever doing anything to control or solve his problems (the harassment was perpetrated for about twenty-five years), made Nassar a person who would not deserve to set foot outside prison ever again.
The letter presented by the defendant, where he attempted to portray himself as a victim of a media circus, was put aside with an inflexible gaze. These girls and women can now move forward with the awareness that justice has been done and, above all that their voices have been heard: without time limits, without restrictions, and without limitations.
It is also interesting to analyse the way in which the Larry Nassar case has been debated and reported by journalists. The case itself has of course been largely covered by almost the entire worldwide press.
In Italy, many newspapers and newscasts have discussed it, causing various discussions and exchanges of views on Twitter and Facebook. Newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera, Il Post, Vanity Fair and Sky Sports have spoken about the trial.
Naturally, the case itself (and above all, the behaviour of the judge) had the largest press coverage in the USA, where the trial took place, although the newspaper articles about Judge Aquilina and her surely remarkable figure are nearly as numerous as the ones reporting the trial and Nassar’s crimes. Maltatoday, The Independent, BBC, Studybreaks and many other online resources have published articles and posts about the Judge, referring to her as “The American-Maltese Icon”, a “Quiet Hero”, the “Fearsome, Ferocious ‘Barracuda’ Judge Aquilina”, a “Fierce Advocate” etc.
Why has Judge Aquilina had such important media coverage? Didn’t she just apply the law? Maybe we should all reflect on the reason why this case is so outstanding. When a vast majority of judges globally are men it might raise the question as to whether that creates a barrier for justice for sexual crimes, which are overwhelmingly committed against women.
For every article about Judge Aquilina, there are hundreds of ones about rape victims not being paid attention to in court, being misunderstood by male judges. Judge Aquilina has been seen as a hero even if what she did is arguably just “doing the right thing” simply because women are not always lucky enough to experience justice labels this case as unique. Women are not always lucky enough to be granted the freedom to say what they want or need to say without facing any consequences.
In Turkey, for example, there was no strong media coverage of the trial, as there has been in other European countries. Only a few newspapers like Sputnik Turkey, Habertürk and BBC Turkey mentioned the trial and the consequent conviction. Despite a lack of coverage in domestic news, there was still a presence of these stories on social media and in smaller media outlets. It is hoped that coverage like this will empower victims to speak up when they face injustices and we will work towards a world where no more victims need to come forward and say “me too”.
Written by Melissa Vitiello; edited by Liz Manion